Friday, February 20, 2009

No Right to Privacy During Computer Repair

In PA, a customer left his PC at Best Buy to have a new DVD drive installed. The tech poked through his hard drive looking for a file to test the DVD drive, and found child porn. The authorities were called, the man arrested. His lawyer argued that the evidence was illegally obtained and the court agreed. The appellate court has overturned that on the grounds that he consented to the DVD drive install. So now he going back to trial.

This is the key clause from the ruling.

If a person is aware of, or freely grants to a third party, potential access to his computer contents, he has knowingly exposed the contents of his computer to the public and has lost any reasonable expectation of privacy in those contents…

Hard drives contain lots of data. Even if you are a perfectly honorable person that would never go near porn, spyware, spam, your spouse, one of your kids, or a babysitter could have downloaded illegal porn that now resides on your hard drive. Given the hysteria with which law enforcement officials react to anything child porn related, it’s a safe bet that should you end up on the wrong side of something like this, it will not be pleasant. Even beyond the illegal porn issue, most of us have all sorts of information on our computers that we would not want some stranger looking at.

It’s something to think about. It’s important to note that this was not a computer tech being nosy. He needed a video file to test the new DVD player and stumbled into the porn by accident. In a perfect world, we would all run desktop encryption that protects our personal data. I don’t even bother with that, and I’m a geek. Actually, I don’t know a single person that does.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Should I-Pods Be Banned from School?

Some high schools are banning iPods and other digital media players because students load them up with notes and formulas before tests. That must be nice. We had to make do with what we could write on the back of our hands

The columnist makes a point that I agree with completely. By forcing kids to memorize the formulas, schools are focusing on the wrong material. Kids study for tests by guessing at what the teacher considers important, memorizing it, and then promptly forgetting it with a day or two. How is that valuable?

The fact that somebody can memorize a formula is not important. In the real world, nobody will expect them to memorize this stuff. Having instant access to notes and reference material via an IPod or the Internet is considered a good thing, not cheating. Instead of banning iPods, they should be encouraged. Make every test open book and open Internet. Then make tests a test of the students problem solving ability, and not a test of their memorization ability.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Do You Google Yourself or Your kids?

A recent survey revealed that less than 1/2 (47%) of Internet users have ever punched their own name into Google. That number is a lot lower than I would have thought. It’s not that I think adult Internet users are narcissistic, but ego surfing does seem to be a logical use of Google.

If you have kids, you should definitely Google their names to make sure they aren’t posting personal information that you’d rather not be out there. I have absolutely no privacy qualms about this at all. If it’s in Google, by definition it’s public info. It’s not snooping!

If you have a fairly unique name this can be a very effective exercise. If you are the Smith family with kids Bob and Tom, it’s not going to be particularly useful. In that case, you’ll want to play around and search the kids names plus their school or your hometown. Try a few things that would likely appear near their names if they were posting in bulletin boards or social networking sites. You’ll need to be creative to ferret out whatever info may be out there. Not finding anything surprising is what you are hoping for.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Social Networking Privacy Primer

This privacy overview of Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn provides a very useful overview of their privacy controls and how you can use them to protect yourself while still getting value from those sites. If your not the kind of person that automatically play with all the options under “settings” on those types of sites, this article is for you. If your kids are on Facebook or Myspace it might not be a bad idea to have them read this article and then review their settings page together to make sure they aren’t broadcasting anything that shouldn’t be broadcast.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I Think I'd Rather Have the Cash

Apparently, it’s becoming trendy to pay your kids allowance in “screen time” instead of cold, hard cash. If you are having issues regulating computer / TV time I guess this is one way to handle it. Maybe somebody should make a coin activated Bob and then you can pay the kids in cash and get it back when they feed dollar bills into Bob to get online :)

Seriously though, what do you think of this idea? I can’t imagine any reasonable parent regulating access to books, or board games in this way. Why is it different just because it’s electronic and interactive? My 10 year old daughter spends a lot of time playing Horse Isle. In fact, of more than 30,000 people playing the game, she currently has the 2nd most valuable horse. She has to understand the rules of the game, apply them in way to maximize the value of her horses, negotiate trades and sales with other players, synthesize the new additions to the game and decide how to best use them, etc. Reading comprehension, applying the rules, finding the loopholes that can be exploited for advantage, and negotiating all sound like fairly good skills to have in both video games and real life. Both kids like to browse Wikipedia. Why would I limit that but give them unlimited access to a set of hardbound encyclopedias? My son owns books on Roman Legion infantry tactics because he thought they would help him get higher scores in Rome: Total War. (I don’t know if it actually helped). He knows far more about ancient Rome than I do, yet he has never had a “class” that covered it. Again, why would I limit that?

The line between education and entertainment has become very blurry. There is a lot going on in games and online in general that is directly applicable to education. It’s not as simple as schoolwork happens in the books and fun happens in the games. It’s all mixed up now, and as parents I think we need a more nuanced view of the value of gaming or online time. Certainly a lot of time can be wasted online. But a lot of good happens there too.

Humorous aside - check out the picture in the article. The boy is wailing on Guitar Hero about 3 feet from where his sister is trying to do homework. I hope that was just a posed picture for the paper and not the normal set up in that house!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Is It OK to Lie About Your Age Online?

This is an interesting question. Many websites that have content that would be interesting to a 12 year old will not let a 12 year register with the site. I believe it’s mostly related to the COPPA Act. YouTube simply won’t accept the registration, Yahoo will only accept it if it’s tied to an adult’s account.

The obvious and easy answer is simply to make up a birth date. Beyond facilitating access to the site, this also has privacy implications as using a fake birthday helps protect your privacy. I’ve been locked out of sites in the past when I forgot my password and couldn’t verify my birthday as part of the recovery process because I had no idea what I supplied as my birthday when I signed up. Preteens tend to live in a black and white world, so teaching them that it is OK to lie online may have repercussions that are less than ideal.

The parent I linked to above used his birthday and registered on behalf of his child, which is a good compromise. However, generally speaking, there are a lot of situations online where you are asked for personal information that really isn’t relevant to whatever you are doing. We’ve taught our kids to not provide personal info online and to use aliases in their online games, etc.

Is an alias a lie? Is that bad, or that one of those good white lies? It’s a tricky question.